Madness frontman Suggs is taking another step beyond with his one-man show and autobiography – and insists he’s happy to forget about finding long-lost Scottish family members
IT’S mid-afternoon in Soho and Suggs is sitting at a table outside a café, one of his regular haunts, when his old mate Big Tel the market trader rolls up with an empty barrow. Tel has been at it since dawn and is finished for the day. There are a lot of “Awrights”, then they arrange to meet for a drink later when Suggs is done with his interview.
“He works just round the corner. Lovely man. I’ve known him for years, like all my best mates,” says Suggs, now 52. “It’s very hard to make new old friends. With old ones you have the intertwined lives, understanding, shared experiences. I think all the success that Madness has had is because we were friends first. And it’s survived all the ego and money.”
Suggs seems to know all of the traders and café owners here. It’s his patch. These neon-lit streets are where he grew up and where his mother Edith worked as a jazz singer and barmaid in the clubs to support the pair of them. The publicans and their clientele filled his childhood with a bohemian mix of musical influences and larger-than-life characters that all went to make Suggs the performer he is.
“I love Soho. It has four or five seasons a day, from the stalls in the morning to the cafés in the afternoon and at night the clubs. My favourite time is between 2pm and 4pm when the pubs are full of out-of-work actors and people who have finished their shifts. The band were all brought up in London and it has informed most of our work. I’m not saying it’s better than anywhere else, it just happens to be the place I was sitting in as a budding songwriter, as a world of inspiration strolled by.”
As Soho catches its breath between the graft of the morning and the buzz of the night ahead, a snappily dressed Suggs resplendent in Hugo Boss jacket, jeans, orange scarf and black suede brogues, watches the world go by as he discusses his autobiography, Suggs: That Close.
“That close” to what?
“My whole life has been directed by so many quirks of fate, chance encounters that could have led down to so many different paths. It was often that close. That close to people, to success, to disaster,” he writes in the book’s intro.
Always too busy to write it before, with his children Scarlett and Viva now grown up and a 50th birthday putting him into reflective mode, he decided two years ago to sit down and record the story of Graham McPherson. He details his rise from the streets of North London through the Madness years to their crowning as a national institution last year when they played on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and helped close the Olympics.
The book is like a Madness video that begins by setting the scene, nailing a feeling of time and place, then stampedes into snapshots of Suggs and the mayhem around him. He admits to spending most of his time on the first half, his childhood, and it is wonderfully evocative of 1970s London and the three idyllic years he spent in Wales, where he was sent to live with his cousins.
“Soho was a fundamental part of my life. I spent a lot of time here. Mum played the piano and worked behind the bar in the Colony. She worked late but there’s no judgment about her not being around all the time. She couldn’t, she had to support us and she also wanted to live her life. Talk about feminism…
“I hate the way the press sensationalise it and talk about me being pulled around nightclubs by my mum, making it sound like it was neglect. But there was a lot of love in places like the Colony. It was a place for outsiders and misfits, so everyone was welcome.”
The Colony Room in Dean Street was a magnet for “jazz musicians, writers, painters, toffs, artists, poets, coppers, strippers, gangsters, transvestites and plain old drunks,” says Suggs, who navigated his way below the fug of smoke among the “fishnet-clad knees – and that was just the fellas”, observing the likes of Francis Bacon, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard and Lucian Freud.
“That was the hardest bit to write, the first couple of chapters about mum and our flat. I didn’t want to allow people to be judgmental. She’s not judgmental – more mental. Then I had a breakthrough reading The Catcher In The Rye and realised I should concentrate on what it was like to be a kid. What it felt like, smelt like, see it through the eyes of the way I was then. Not intellectualise it…
“I didn’t want to do it with a ghost writer. It’s your life and you want to be true to it, but once I’d started it I thought, f*** me, it’s hard. I did the first bit, then realised I had another 40,000 words and sank into a depression. So I went on holiday to Mexico and ended up in a hoolie instead.”
Consequently the second half of the book is a bit of a read-through of Suggs’ hoolies; with Madness on tour, at the football with his mates, on holiday with his family, but it’s none the worse for that.
“I wanted to put in lots of snapshots of what it was like in Madness, because you can’t shortchange the reader. And I tried to say something about what it is to be a human being.”
Born in Hastings in 1961, Suggs was the son of jazz singer Edith, who he is still very close to, and a photographer whose life was ruined by heroin. Suggs’ father left the family and died in 1975 at the age of 40.
“I didn’t think about my father,” says Suggs. “There were no memories of anything physical. He just didn’t exist. It was just normal to me – three quarters of Madness were from single-parent families – but obviously in my heart somewhere was a hole for my father. But I didn’t feel bad about it.”
Young Suggs had enough going on at the huge comprehensive school where his shenanigans inspired the Baggy Trousers single. To avoid being bullied for being an ethnic minority (Scottish) he says, he chose a nickname at random from one of his mother’s jazz books, Peter Suggs. “I’m now inextricably linked forever to an obscure jazz drummer from Kentucky.” Then Madness happened at 16, by 18 he was on Top Of The Pops and at 20 he married Anne, a member of Deaf School, whom he is still with. He never felt the need to find his father, or search out the McPherson clan.
“I didn’t think about it, but later I found out what happened to dad. He got remarried to a very young girl and died, then she died a year later from an overdose. It’s tragic. But I’m interested in where I am now, the path I have been on, and it’s not relevant. Maybe there’s something about blood and an affinity, and it would be great if I did have Scottish family somewhere, but I don’t know them, and to be honest, I have enough to be going on with. F*** them all,” he says, but with a smile.
“Madness have always been a sort of surrogate family – with all the frustration, the annoyance, the aggro. A f***ed-up, chaotic, ridiculous, argumentative, impossible... unbeatable lot. And I’m with Anne because I love her and the kids. There might have been a Freudian aspect to having lots of people around me, but who knows?”
The Madness sound that brought them such success – ten studio albums, nine compilation albums, two live albums, one soundtrack, two EPs, four box sets and 37 singles, plus the record for most weeks spent by a group in the 1980s UK singles charts – was a combination of the multicultural musical influences the seven North London lads had been hearing all their lives; British and American pop, blues, soul, ska, rocksteady, reggae, punk, dormant 1960s and, in particular, 1970s Jamaican music, Prince Buster, Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, right up to Linton Kwesi Johnson.
“It was a musical form that historically had been looked down upon by the British musical intelligentsia, music that yobbos in Mecca ballrooms danced, and fought to, on a Saturday night,” writes Suggs.
Yet with its subtle infinities of rhythm, Madness considered it “great music to dance to and the attitude, humour and style of them original rude boys sat very well with us. The style, stance and swagger. If I had a puff I didn’t want to just sit round… trying to work out what Roger Waters was on about, or marvel at the dexterity of a 15-minute long guitar solo. I wanted to hear one of them hypnotic, melodic, pumping bass lines booming and get on my feet and do some of that old moon stomping.”
Madness’s love of theatrics and costume was also informed by Suggs’ first gig – The Who, in 1976. The support band was the equally theatrical Sensational Alex Harvey Band who also struck a note.
“I didn’t put this in the book ’cos the publishers said it was controversial and too outrageous, and it’s not funny, but Alex Harvey came on dressed as Adolf Hitler and did Framed with a German accent. It was f***ing outrageous. Madness was influenced by that and vaudeville… Jacques Brel and Tommy Cooper. Reggae and Motown. David Bowie and Samuel Beckett. All of that,” he says.
All seven of the band wrote songs, with Suggs’ favourites being One Better Day from 1984 and The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, 2009.
“They are as lyrical as you can get without dissolving into metaphysical poetry. I’m proud of all those songs. They resonated at the time and I felt they were going to sound good in 20 years’ time. We had a respect for the future, and for what the band would become. We were righteous, even within the superficiality of pop music, and even though it was the usual stuff about the bird in the back of the car.”
Always in danger of “being dragged towards a sort of black hole of Eighties nostalgia” as Suggs puts it, he reckons they were saved by The Liberty Of Norton Folgate. And it’s true; there’s more to Madness than being the go-to band for catchy advertising jingles, though Birds Eye bagged Our House, and Colgate Baggy Trousers. For Madness have always identified with the underdog, the outcasts, unemployed and disaffected and their songs spoke to the everyday experiences of ordinary people.
“People aren’t stupid. They understand the levels of something even if it seems simplistic. The back story is what resonates,” says Suggs. “The Jubilee performance seemed to have more impact than almost anything else we’d done. I think it was the combination of singing Our House and turning the palace into a block of flats with an image projected on the front. And maybe because we sang, It Must Be Love. I mean, ‘Nothing more, nothing less, love is the best’.”
Suggs is keen to point out that Madness were always very political. “We were socialists, and still are, to a greater or lesser extent. Our first gig at the Hope and Anchor was the night Margaret Thatcher got voted in, God help us. All that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ and what they did to the unions… We were a little society of our own and tried to create a feeling of belonging. Our House becomes authentic, even though it’s an abstract. It’s the idea of family.
“We did Red Wedge [aimed at raising political awareness among young people] with Billy Bragg, The Specials, Jerry Dammers, Paul Weller, and we did loads of stuff for the miners, benefits for the strikers and families.”
Suggs credits Dammers of The Specials with awakening his political instincts. The pair met when The Specials played the Hope and Anchor and Dammers wound up sleeping on Suggs’ mum’s sofa. Before he left, he’d signed Madness to his nascent 2 Tone label, which delivered their first hit and a tour with The Specials, The Selecter and Dexys Midnight Runners.
“We had a great epiphany when we went on the 2 Tone tour. Before I met The Specials I read the Daily Express. The tour was transforming and made us more serious. Going around the country you couldn’t ignore the hordes of kids in T-shirts with nothing to do.”
Life was good for Madness, but in 1984, Mike Barson, one of the main songwriters and the keyboard player, left and two years later they disbanded.
“We split up because Mike left and in them days you didn’t think about having time off or out. You toured, made records and did nothing else. After about eight years doing other stuff – radio and TV – a mate in the music business said all these bands coming through aren’t any better than Madness. So we rang around and got together again and did Finsbury Park, Madstock in 1992. Thirty-five thousand people turned up. We caused an earthquake. Really.”
A local earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale was indeed reported at their Finsbury Park gig, caused by 35,000 people pogo-ing to One Step Beyond.
Suggs’ life involves no end of riotous events where things get out of hand. The band sit on a roller-coaster 54 times for the House Of Fun video, dangle a band member by his belt from a crane for Baggy Trousers. No stunt or outfit is too daft. Teeth are lost, as Suggs falls off stage, escapes marauding protesters and football hooligans, usually when drink has been taken. After he and his family and friends take the train to a festival in Paris, falling en masse on to the station platform along with the odd bottle, Suggs looks up and sees Noel Gallagher also disembarking, solo and sober, folding his newspaper. He admits to feeling a pang of envy, but it doesn’t last.
So what would he say to his younger self, the teenage Suggs spray-painting his moniker all over North London, climbing over the school wall or getting involved in fights on the football terraces? “Nothing. I’d give him a hug. What could I say? Everything that happened in my life was for a reason, not some cosmic bullshit. I’m where I am in the world today because of all those things. The book will be sensationalised as some horror or other, but it wasn’t. I was as happy as a sandboy most of the time. It was my life passing by. I’ve loved my life, the crazed bohemian bit, the family bit, the band, everything. I’m Celtic. I’m always happy. Except for days when I don’t want to get out of bed.”
Interview over it’s time for him to catch up with Big Tel, then it’s back to working on the new Madness album, out next year, and preparing for his one-man show, My Life Story: Suggs. “It’s at the Garrick. I’ve always wanted to do that, play in the West End.” For Suggs it’s one more step beyond.
Suggs: That Close (Quercus, £20) is out now, www.suggsthatclose.co.uk. My Life Story: Suggs, Garrick Theatre, London 1-22 December (four shows), www.suggslive.com, tickets from £20, tel: 0844 482 9673 or book online